Thursday, September 7, 2006

The Jewish Ghetto in Rome: A Community Fighting Conversion

Shannon Schmoll
Honors in Rome - Summer 2006

Better to save them against their will than allow them to perish
according to their will .
-Firmicus Maternus, 4th Century AD

These words were uttered 1200 years before the implementation of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome, yet there was little change in the attitude for nearly 15 centuries. Since the advent of Christianity there has been hostility towards the Jewish Faith. This is seen with the story of Paul wanting to convert the Jews shortly after the crucifixion of Christ, who he called “power of God and the wisdom of God” while claiming that the “Jews killed the lord Jesus” (Grant, 153, 157) Since the Christians had the upper hand politically and by population in Rome, the Popes used the Ghetto as a method of converting the Jews. The horrible living conditions created in and outside the Ghetto made Christianity a way out for the Jews. Furthermore, the ghetto kept the Jews confined, giving the Christian Popes easier access to the community as a whole. Becoming Christian was the only way to avoid the Ghetto and all it entailed. Yet, in the end, the ghetto proved a useful tool for keeping the Roman Jews in tact, both in their faith and as a community.


Pre-Ghetto: Pagan to Christian Times
During Pagan Rome the Jews were treated relatively well. It was customary for citizens to recognize the power of the ruling God of a specific region. For instance, in Rome it was the god Jupiter. The Jews were able to able to gain clemency over this law by paying a tax to the temple of Jupiter (Vogelstein, 96).
In 476 AD the Roman Empire fell, and the Christian state slowly began to take over the Eternal City. During this time, the Jews were still respected as productive members of society and many of the popes valued the judgement of the Jews in matters of medicine, often hiring Jewish doctors (Vogelstein, 264). The Christians and the Jews were able to co-exist in Rome for the most part, peacefully but not without tension.

In early Christian Rome the Emperors often protected the Jews. For example, during the reign of Theodoric (487 – 526 AD), the Jews were allowed to freely practice their religion. He is quoted as saying “we cannot prescribe religion, because no one can be forced to profess a faith contrary to his convictions” (Vogelstein 112). Beyond this the Jews were also free to be bound by only Jewish law, giving them religious autonomy. In the end this self-government eventually separated the Jews from the political aspects of Rome, leaving them helpless when this privilege was revoked.

Though Theodoric and his predecessors protected the Jews, they still could not accept the Jewish faith as a genuine religion. The taxes paid by the Jewish people in pagan times no longer granted them the same clemency towards believing their own faith. Acknowledgement was no longer the requirement of the Christian state; instead it was outright faith and belief in the Christian God. Gregory the Great, also took to protecting the Jews, but saw them as corrupted and stupid for not accepting Christianity. As a result Gregory offered economic advantages to converted Jews in order to entice them (Vogelstein, 115). This ideal would later be taken one step further.


The creation of the ghetto marked a new era of suppression and humiliation for the Jews of Rome and Italy. Pope Paul IV, a member of the Neapolitan Caraffa family, ascended the throne in 1555 (Martin, 10). Within a month the Roman ghetto was created, and the thousands of Jewish men, women, and children were forced to live in a walled area, across the Tiber River from where a majority had previously lived (see fig. 1). The main reason for building the ghetto was to protect the Christians from the unpure Jews and the Jews from the Christian mobs. Throughout his reign, Paul IV was a despised by both the Christians and the Jews for his harsh policies. At the time of his death statues of him were torn down and thrown into the Tiber River (Hibbert 172). Yet, despite the hatred towards Paul IV, no pope afterwards would reverse his edict for a Jewish precinct. For the next 300 years the Jews would be forced to live within the confines of the ghetto.
The ghetto was located on the banks of the Tiber River, with the water acting as a southern border. There was originally only one gate to the ghetto, which eventually grew to 8 in 1824 when the ghetto was expanded to accommodate the now 7000 Jewish citizens (Martin, 18). The 4 major gates after this were the Portico D’Ottavia in the northeast corner, the Ponte Fabrico and Cinque Scole in the south, and the Piazza Mattei in the northwest. It was the Roman Mattei family who kept the gates and allowed Jews and Christians in and out of the confines (Martin, 18).

The ghetto walls and gates stayed in use until 1798, when French revolutionary ideals swept the continent. As a result the Jewish ghetto in Rome was abolished. Shortly thereafter however, the papacy regained control of Italy, and the ghetto was reinstated. This same process happened again in 1848 (Martin 11-12).

As early as 598 , the idea that the Christians must be protected from the Jews as much as the Jews be protected from the Christians. Gregory the Great remarked that “Just as the Jews must not be allowed freedom in their communities beyond the measure of what is permitted, neither must they suffer any vexation in their proper rights” (Vogelstein, 115) This idea flourished with the papal state as well. This should also hold true later on in history once the papal states fell. Yet, it remains a fact that the ghetto was only ever kept when there was a Christian power at hand. The ghetto could be seen as a tool for the Christians, not only to protect themselves, but to help save the souls of the Jewish people.


Living Conditions
As can be imagined, life within the ghetto was harsh. Within the tight quarters, the Jewish had to find a way to make enough room for the whole population. Their solution was to add on additional floors to the buildings that were walled in. As the height of the buldings grew, the less sunlight was able to enter. In addition, the location of the ghetto was such that the Tiber River flooded into the community at least once a year. The resulting damp conditions were made worse by the lack of sun, resulting in a breeding ground for disease (Philipson, 125).

Life outside the limits of the ghetto was equally difficult. The Jews were forced to wear markings of their heritage, in the form of a yellow head covering, hats for men and scarves from women (Philipson, 123). This made it readily apparent who they were for gangs of disapproving Christians. Jews were not allowed to leave Rome for longer than a day and they could never spend the night outside the ghetto while in Rome (Philipson 129-130). The exact length of time for this regulation changed from pope to pope, but never lasted very long. The occupations for Jews were extremely limited. They were not allowed to have any business relations with Christians, act as coachman, or practice medicine on non-Jews (Vogelstein 263–302). As for business, Jews were only allowed to sell used rags, which adds up to a meager living.

The Jews were often humiliated by the regulations placed on them. The Jews had to gain permission from the Pope for nearly everything they did, and this included burial of the dead. Often permission for marked graves was denied, leaving the dead with an empty stone to mark their resting place (Vogelstein, 274). More often, this stone was too expensive for the family, leaving unmarked graves all over.

All copies of the Talmud, the written Jewish law, were taken from the ghetto and burned. To add insult to injury, this was most commonly done on the Jewish New Year. Furthermore, all Hebrew writings were destroyed by the Christians, with the exception of a very few items not pertaining to religion (Vogelstein, 265). The removal of Hebrew and the seclusion from the rest of Rome also resulted in a new Italian dialect, giving the Jews even more distinction outside of the walls.
The disgrace of their own religion through the burning of their sacred books was met with further humiliation when the Jews were forced to greet every new pope with adulation. This was also coupled with forced requests from the pope to be allowed to live in the ghetto, despite the horrid conditions. This was done partially because of ceremony and partially because they hoped for better treatment with each new Pope (Vogelstein, 275).

Physical humiliation was also added onto the emotional disgrace endured by the Jewish People during this time. Every year the Romans would have a carnival in which they would watch animal races. Often the Jews had to compete against these animals clothed only in a loin cloth. This practice continued until 1668, when the Jews finally petitioned their way out, though this wasn’t granted without consequences. In order to be saved from shame the Jews had to pay a new tax of 300 scudi per year ( Philipson, 141-142).

The taxes paid due to the races added an extra financial burden onto the Jewish community. During this time they had to pay for each synagogue in the papal state, even when the building had been torn down. They also had to pay for the construction of the ghetto wall. The Jews also had to pay an additional tax for each Jewish person between the age of 15 and 60, called the Poll tax. Perhaps, the worst tax of all was the money they had to put out for the conversion of their own people to Chrisitianity.

Forced Conversions
The Romans had created two institutions to help in the conversion of the Jews, the House of the Catechumens and the Casa Pia, both paid for by the Roman Jews (Philipson, 171). Here, new converts stayed while they prepared for full acceptance of the Christian faith. During this period, none of the converts were allowed to speak with their family or any Jews for that matter.
It was not uncommon that people were taken there against their will. All it took to was one person saying they had heard the Jew state a desire to become Christian. This was evidence enough, despite most proposals being lies. In the case of families, if the father converted to Christianity, so must the entire family. If a young bridegroom converted, so must his bride. If she refused, the rare approval of divorce was granted by the Christians, though Jewish law still prohibited the action. It was also common for the rabbis to be forced into conversion along with their entire family.
Children were often taken from their parents and placed in the House of Catechumens. This was usually done on the pretense that the parents had stated a desire for their children to be converted. Children above seven years of age did not need any parental consent, and were often forcefully taken during raids of the ghetto or while the family was outside of the walls. The converted children were often paraded during festivals and carnivals to show the might and power of Christianity. If a new convert failed to profess their new faith after 40 days they would usually be released .
The Christians did not only rely on force and trickery to convert the Jews, but also true proselytization through required weekly sermons given by a Catholic Priest. All Jews over the age of 12 were driven to the sermons on Saturdays after they went to the Synagogue. There was usually a 150 to 300 person requirement for these sermons, which the rabbis were responsible for reaching. The punishment for sleeping, laughing, or not paying attention in any way was a whipping (Philipson, 143-145). The hopes of these sermons, ironically, was to show how Christianity was superior to Judaism. Ultimately the sermons were unsuccessful.

The ghetto strengthened the Jewish community and made it far more cohesive than before. This was also a benefit for the Popes. During this period in Rome, it was the community that was taxed rather than the individual (Vogelstein, 315-316). This allowed the popes to make sure the taxes against the Jewish People were paid in full. Also, there was a 60 member committee in the Ghetto which consisted of 3 fattori who regulated life in the ghetto (Philipson, 158). They had both a role for the Jews and the Pope. Since everything needed to be sanctioned by the pope, they acted as advisors to him. However, they also acted protectors of their people. The signatures of the Fattori were required on all books written in the ghetto to be sure they would not be confiscated and burned by the Christians. The Rabbis were usually elected from the Fattori and with about 10 families being of the greatest influence (Vogelstein, 317).

The ghetto acted as a means to help convert the Jews. The horrid conditions they were subjected to would have made a Christian life seem so much better. The rules and regulations placed upon them also made it very easy for them to be forced into Christianity either against their will or through trickery. In keeping the Jews confined to one realm of the city, it also made it easier for the Christians to inflict humiliation and pain on them as a whole. The confinement cut the community off from the rest of the city and the world. The Jews were not able to be what they once were. Yet, here also is a story of triumph.
Because of the ghetto, the Jews were also able to fight the conversionist policies that were set against them. For the Jews there was the community and the pope. Their limited legal interactions with others forced them to rely on one another and also to protect one another as well as their faith. They became stronger and forged a lasting community that was able to rejoice together when the walls were torn down completely in 1870. Though the walls fell and freedom was restored to the Jews, their powerful community never lost its strength, allowing them to survive greater atrocities later on.

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Hibbert, Christopher. Rome: The Biography of A City. London: Penguin Books, 1985.

Martin, Leah. “Suspending Cultural Latency: Unearthing the history, faith, subjagation,
and pride of the Jewish Ghetto in Rome.” Seattle: University of Washington, 1998

Philipson, David. Old European Jewries. “Ghetto in Rome”. Philadelphia: Jewish
Publications Society of America, 1894.

Vogelstein, Hermann. Rome. Philadelphia: Jewish Publications Society of America,